Years ago I studied Karate-do. We learned to throw a very powerful punch in a way that made no sense. We’d punch with the right hand, while pulling the left hand back to the hip. The right hand would make a sudden corkscrewing snap at the last minute, just before contact. Sensei was adamant that hikite, the withdrawing hand, was the most important part of the punch. He insisted that hand be the fastest moving thing in the punch. Shotokan is a style known for hitting really hard, and we drilled that punch endlessly. Over and over.
Modern martial artists make fun of it. They always ask why the stupid mechanics. Why leave your face exposed by pulling the other hand back, and even more so, why pull it all the way down to the hip? What possible advantage could that have? My response back then was mostly that we just did it that way, and it seemed to work. Later I learned some tactical reasons for pulling the hand back like that, but most people just accept it as something weird only meant for training, not real fighting.
If we look at the classic fencing lunge, we see the left hand extended all the way back while the sword arm extends forward. This makes plenty of sense. When attacking with a sword, you want to keep your body profiled as much as possible right? Small target, more of the body hidden behind the forte of the attacking blade. This is just common sense. And sometimes when you watch a fencer really power a fast lunge, you see that trailing arm not only sweep backwards, but move down at the same time.
I learned pretty quickly in my first days of fencing that I could hit like a brick. I didn’t learn to throw my hand back, but I still fell back on my Shotokan mechanics and instinctively threw the sword with punch mechanics, pulling my opposite shoulder back. It took me tens of hours of drilling to teach myself to hit without hurting people. The fencing lunge and the karate punch seemed so similar to me. And that was for a reason. One of the biggest muscles powering both actions is the same. It’s the Latissimus Dorsi in the back.
The Latissimus connects from almost all the way down at the base of the spine, to the tops of the iliac crest through a big slab of tendon. The top end of the muscle attaches to the top of the arm, at the front. It serves to pull the arm down, as well as to rotate the arm. If you contract the left latissimus, your left arm and side will contract down towards your left butt cheek. Which means your right side will do the opposite action.
A powerful contraction of one latissimus paired with the relaxation or lengthening of the other results in a strong rotational impetus. A mechanical extension of the arm forward translates that rotational energy into linear extension and speed. A powerful lunge or punch, coming not from the obvious muscles of the front or the arm, but the big muscles of the back.
Throwing the arm backwards in a lunge helps with maximum recruitment of muscles fibers. The noticeable downturn of the arm sometimes apparent indicates a recruitment high enough to have engaged a downward pull of the arm. In the karate punch, pulling the hand down and back to the hip serves to not only maximally contract the latissimus, but to also pre-stretch the pectoralis for its involvement in the next punch. And the final kicker is the last minute rotation of the hand to a palm-down position, which pulls in the final, near-complete contraction of the latissimus, squeezing every last bit of muscular power out for a punch.
Sometimes the odd lessons of the past can reveal a deeper truth. The latissimus is a muscle that deserves a little more attention in our daily martial arts practice. Consider the effect a tight latissumus can have on pelvic tilt when the arms are extended, and how that can affect footwork and knee position. And don’t forget the role the latissimus has on balance…